The Glass Menagerie: The Fragile Heart of the Matter.
It’s the starkest of the stark. The most bare stage set-up that I’ve seen in a long time. It could be a rehearsal of a first table reading, with a shelf filled with the props, on an empty stage. A cast of three is introduced to us, one by one, by the narrator who will also be the fourth character in this memory play. We are feed the scenario of The Glass Menagerie as most beautifully and uniquely written by Tennessee Williams and directed by Sam Gold (Fun Home, Othello at the NYTW). A director known for his simplifying and focusing in. And so it begins. Like a flip of a switch. We are asked to see past the barrenness and into the prison the three members of the Wingfield family find themselves. Ignore the grey box this will be acted out for us in (a talented design team- scenic: Andrew Lieberman; costume: Wojciech Dziedzic; lighting: Adam Silverman). Think of the space as if it’s a large grey mass like the narrator’s brain where his personal and very private memories are about to be played out for us, where details blur and disappear into the background, and only the heart of the matter, or should I say, the pain of the situation is remembered and repeated, over and over agin. The details fade away into the grey, and he, and we, are left with this.
Joe Montello, the actor (The Normal Heart on Broadway and on HBO) and director (The Humans), is the first to appear on the stage as the grown up version of the young Tom Wingfield that we will soon see. He will enacting out the memory of the disastrous ending of his relationship with his mother, Amanda (the surprisingly moving Sally Field) and in turn, his sister, Laura (the devastatingly good Madison Ferris). His story is etched in guilt and shame about what he did in order to survive his life. Montello does a fine job as both the narrator and as the young man caught between living life and embracing responsibility. His frustration with his mother is exacting, but in this production, he is the least captivating of the family of three. Or at least on par with everyone else. He is engaging but feels minor and a bit out of place in this family that feels much more southern than this New York-sounding man. Older Tom is not proud of this moment in his life, and maybe that is why he needs to keep rehashing those evenings and the moment that finally pushes him to act as he did that one rainy night when the gentleman caller came for dinner.
The effervescent Sally Field as the desperate mother, abandoned by her traveling charmer of a husband, is astounding in her simplicity, frustration, and frailty. She is lost in her own memories of gentlemen callers and southern charms, a world that seems so long ago and so out of reach of this disappointed woman. Field (last seen on Broadway in Edward Albee’s The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? in 2002) is an actress that I’m always surprised by. She seems to be one type of person, but is able to utilize her image against us, drawing all the attention of the house by her unleashed fire. That is what makes her so memorable in moments like that iconic scene in the graveyard in the film, Steel Magnolias. Here, as the matriarch of this collapsing family, she reels us in with her insistence and need, while crippling us with her fury. It’s a shockingly powerful performance, one that I didn’t expect from the soft-spoken genteel actress, and actress I always underestimate.
That being said, unlike any other production I have seen before, the true power of this unique production is placed firmly on the shoulders of what is usually considered the secondary characters. The sister/daughter, Amanda and the gentleman caller, Jim O’Connor. When Cherry Jones lead the most recent revival back in 2013 with Zachary Quinto, those two supporting characters were lovely and touching (Celia Keenan-Bolger and Brian J. Smith) but over-shadowed by the strength of the two leads and their exciting chemistry. Generally speaking, this is how most productions pan out, the shy girl and the polite man do their parts, but we are more focused on the powerful mother and the desperate son. Here, these two strike a much stronger presence then I’ve seen before. Madison Ferris creates a Laura that is without a doubt the least shy one of the lot. She has taken on the descriptive, not because of that word truly suiting her, but because her disabilities, through the insistence from her mother, has attached that personification on to her. The word ‘cripple’ isn’t allowed in that household, so ‘shy’ is the word applied by mother on to daughter. Laura may even believe it herself at times of social interaction, but the reality of her situation (as Laura and as the actress herself) makes just leaving the Wingfield apartment for milk an act of courage and strength. It’s interesting to think about this actress playing the role, not ‘acting’ crippled, but just being. That seems to change the whole dynamic shoving that scene and that character to greater prominence and power. The unicorn becoming just a normal horse never rang more deeply than here.
Finn Wittrock (last seen in NYTW’s Othello) does another stellar job, creating an unstoppable force to be reckoned with as the gentleman caller, Jim. He is everything that is first described of him in the opening monologue by Tom, but on the night of his visit, Jim is so much more. As depicted by Wittrock, Jim is confident and a bit too loud, boistress while also allowing a confused unsure quality to seep out. He has a disillusioned teenage boy trapped inside that brings out a great need in him to be seen as he was, grinning and confident, and not as he is right now. His flirty scene with Amanda, laughing and charming at the table, play off the quieter scenes with Laura beautifully. He woos them both, for the fun, and for the greater need, until at one point he realizes he has gone too far, and let his selfishness play havoc on someone else. It’s a devastating moment that transpires between the two. And as the set and staging effectively depicts, it pulls these normally ‘in the background’ parts to the forefront, and the two leads are at the dining table in the background. Making this a play of four, rather than two and two.
Amazingly, there have been 8 Broadway productions since (including the original) 1945, which tells you a lot about the fascination of this play for performers, directors, and audience members. I have seen numerous productions of The Glass Menagerie over the years, from the disastrous but interesting take on the classic story off-Broadway in 2010 starring Judith Ivey, the troubled 2005 production starring Jessica Lange, Sarah Paulson, Christian Slater, and Josh Lucas, to the powerhouse production starring Jones and Quinto in 2013. This play seems to compel these artists to keep telling this memory story, much in the same way that Tom can’t let himself let go of this moment. It’s a gorgeously powerful story, and here, Gold has managed to give us more view of it from a unique vantage. The rain does come to this memory as it tries hard to wash away the sins of those involved. It cleanses our palate for this new production, and we take it in wholeheartedly. Field isn’t Cherry Jones, but (and I’m surprised as anyone to say this) it doesn’t matter. She makes it her own, and she is matched by her daughter and the gentleman caller. Jim O’Connor may have disappointed Amanda, but not us. And Laura may end up being the most sure footed of the lot.